Finding Your Own Rhythm

While playing a CD of Thelonious Monk’s classic recordings on the way home from work last night, I reflected on something Dave Chappelle said in his documentary Block Party – that he had discovered a whole new world from listening to Monk’s music, and that it still has a profound influence on his comedic timing and his improvisational freestyle sense of humor in general. And it struck me that this ability to allow yourself to color outside the lines, to play the notes outside the beat, could (and should) be applied to all artistic endeavors – and probably scientific ones, as well.

Monk’s syncopated and dissonant piano playing, Picasso’s cubist paintings, Andy Kaufman’s absurdist dadaism, are either embraced as works of a genius mind or misunderstood as nonsensical rubbish. It took over 10 years of exposure to various forms of jazz and blues for me to develop an ear that was mature enough to appreciate Thelonious Monk as well as Miles Davis’ jazz fusion stuff. Guess that’s not all that surprising for someone who grew up on reruns on Gilligan’s Island and a lot of forgettable Top 40 music. These days I find those initially challenging and complex works far more rewarding and memorable than most, especially when compared to the mass-produced corporate music from the Kenny G’s of the world.

As artists, it is our responsibility, our duty, to find our own rhythms. That which works best for you, likely won’t be what I find most intriguing for me, and vice-versa. Consider the word “maverick” — used to describe someone who refuses to play by others’ rules. Think of the actors (male and female) who do not fit the normal mode – often misunderstood, laughed at or ignored in their early years, until eventually they are regarded with respect befitting one who has carved out his or her own unique path in the world: Jack Nicholson, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Downey, Jr., Christopher Walken, to name but a few.

What’s often at the root of the issue with those who misunderstand these artists, is the unfounded idea that this is not true art, that it is being different merely for the sake of being different. However, the work of these artists is different than a child who draws with their crayons outside of the lines in their coloring book, because the child is doing so due to his inability to go inside the lines (or perhaps because he just doesn’t care if he draws within the lines or not). But Picasso could really paint “normal” portraits. Monk really could play on the beat. Andy Kaufman could do “mainstream” humor (as evidenced by his work on the exemplary Taxi). These artists chose to express themselves outside of normal convention, because they had to. It was what was in their soul.

An actor needs to learn the basics before he can truly explore beyond the boundaries. Once he knows how to draw within the lines, then he should begin to play with what he’s learned. To improvise. To discover what works and what doesn’t… what feels good and what feels false. Having started to play, the key is then never to let yourself become stagnant, and to strive for something new each time you perform. Because although you’ve laid down the framework for your own personal style, you must think of it as an ever-changing entity, as opposed to constantly repeating yourself.

This is not to say that every artist needs to live on the outskirts of what is usually considered normal. One can create a perfectly valid lifework within the confines of popular mainstream culture. There are a number of pop songs, for instance, that I think are true masterpieces. As long as you’re in touch with your own muse, and doing what you’re doing to please yourself, first and foremost, I believe you can be exceptional in any genre or style. There are plenty of artists you could call “mainstream mavericks” — who are just as memorable, even if they never veered too far outside of convential culture: Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Muhammed Ali, Johnny Carson, Paul Simon, etc.

As the Isley Brothers say, “It’s your thing – do what you wanna do!”  Whatever you do, don’t do it to please the masses, or to do what you think someone else wants you to do: always, always do what makes you happy, no one else.

Here’s to finding your own unique voice.

© 2006 DJ Holte

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